The journey has been longer and harder than I could have imagined.
It feels like I haven’t slept for days even though I’ve done little else. I had assumed getting here would be the hard part – if I survived that, a new life was guaranteed.
There are hundreds of us, all confined to white plastic tents erected an anonymous warehouse. Nine square metres of boredom. We’ve come from everywhere. We all talk about what we’ve left behind, but the spirits of those places, the essences of our lives no longer exist.
My neighbour was originally from Qatar. She’s a lawyer and speaks five languages. Even she has trouble being understood – what chance do I have?
I had been… am a software engineer. I have a first class honours degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world and I’ve always been ready to prove I belong on the bleeding edge of technology. No one here has bothered to try and find out what I can do. I can tell, from the way they examine their indecipherable screens, they’ve decided I’m just another burden.
And it had not been cheap: More than my life savings and an unscrupulous contract with hustlers who knew they were selling snake oil and didn’t care. But I’d been desperate and it had seemed to be my only hope.
Now it feels selfish and pointless. My parents had encouraged me to do it. My mother had offered to sell the family home. My father had let her.
I wish I’d let the cancer consume me. I would have died of course, but the cryogenics and future science have given me years to live – trapped as a chronological refugee who will never live the life I should have.
Believe it or not, I’m working too hard. Anyone who knows me would find this laughable as I have made an art form of finding an ingenious solution to a problem at the last minute, which makes everyone think I’m much cleverer than I am.
Recently I seem to have taken on more responsibilities, and now find myself slaving away at all hours trying to find answers to problems that are very much not novel related or, in fact, writerly in any way. The cold, hard logic problems of software engineering.
And I think it’s affecting me. I’ve always bemoaned my lack of ability to focus on one project or topic – often blaming it for my failures. It’s extremely easy to say that the reason I haven’t had a novel published is because I’m too much of a polymath, my mind is too vast to be constrained by a single goal and therefore I need to unfetter it and let it wander its own path.
It’s much harder to admit that I just lack discipline and am genuinely an Olympic level procrastinator.
However, my recent attention to one subject (my actual job) has proven to me that I can concentrate. I can bring my (probably not as great as I think it is) intellect to bear entirely onto one subject. I do know what it takes to get things done. And I am perfectly capable of sitting down and doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing.
I just need to do it.
So, obviously, I have now decided, once more, that my dearest desire, my one true calling, the gold at the end of the rainbow is writing. If I want to remain fed, clothed and housed, I cannot stop doing my job, but outside of working hours I am going to concentrate entirely on one thing.
I realise that a healthy mind requires a healthy body which means I should still do a bit of cycling and squash. Maybe a couple of workouts to keep my body and mind supple and capable. And I do want to utilise my games programming muscles.
So, I am now going to focus entirely on this list:
- Finishing “The Motley Life of Edison Swift” before end of June 2022
- Writing two blog posts every week
- Getting The Literarium up and running
- Write a fantastic author helping tool
- Distribute my multidimensional thesaurus to the world
- Create a fabulous Patreon presence
- Ride my bike more
- Get 2,500 SquashLevel points
- Write a working version of Chesster
I think I’ll be much happier now that I’ve only got one thing to do.
I didn’t cry very much when my dad died. There was just too much to do, too many other people to support. I was devastated, but it was the type of tragedy that required resilience and pragmatism, not reflection and melancholy.
I’ve certainly always missed him over the past almost twenty years and I’ve tried to live up to his rigid sense of fair play. If I’ve ever shirked a responsibility or taken the easier (but wrong) path it is always to him that I apologise. And that acknowledgement has always made me think and act differently next time a similar situation arises.
Today, however, while watching the morning session of the Headingley Test match I made up for my lack of tears by imagining what it would have been like had I been able to share the experience with my dad.
The story of the match has led to an exciting conclusion today and my better half is at work all day. I might have rung him up last night and invited him down to watch England snatch an improbable victory from the Aussies.
And so, there we would have sat watching the action in a definition that dad could have hardly dreamed about. He would have loved the recent technologies, Hawkeye, Edge Detection, HotSpot, Ball Spin and all the statistics that come with them. He would have despaired at the Decision Review System which leads to a seeming fallibility of modern umpires. Cricket, like my dad, has always been a solid mix of the traditional and the innovative.
There wouldn’t have been any long conversations, just the occasional observation or recounting of an old story. The most repeated phrases would have been familiar two words, “Good shot”, “Well left”, or in extreme circumstances, “What a shot, ball, catch…” We might have argued about who the best players were, but this would have come down to their work ethic and determination rather than talent.
We would have shared every laugh and cheer though. And this is what has made the day so poignant. At the time of writing Jofra Archer has been caught in the deep so England now require 73 with only two wickets remaining, so a famous victory is unlikely.
Now, perhaps, we would have talked about more personal things. He’d ask about work, about the kids, about everything. I hope he would have been proud of me. I’d like to think he can rest peacefully.
I wrote yesterday’s post as a cathartic rant about my continued failure to succeed in the writing business, which was triggered by me not making the long list of the Bath Flash Fiction Award . I will write some more about that when the wounds are less fresh. Needless to say that will feature a spicy shower scene with my best acquaintance.
However, I thought I had cartharted enough to enter another Faber Academy Friday #QuickFic competition. It turns out that I hadn’t vented enough spleen and now I’ve lost another competition. Which means I’ve mired myself deeper into the swamp of Self Pity, located somewhere to the north of Petulant Anger.
This was the prompt:
“But why pumpkins?” Josh said.
Janet grinned at him. He asked the question every year. She wondered if he was old enough to understand the truth yet.
“Because of the miracle.” She said.
Jan nodded. “Of course! Jack O’Lantern sacrificed himself to save us all.”
“Yeah, but why do we have to scoop his brains out?”
“Well that’s what the witches and demons did to him when he was helpless.”
Josh frowned. “But that’s a really bad thing. I wouldn’t want my brains to be scooped out.”
“That’s why we’re all so thankful to Jack for saving us all. That’s why we celebrate Halloween.”
“Mum?” Daisy said. She stopped hacking at her pumpkin with the finger severing knife traditionally used. “What’s a demond?”
“Well, he’s one of Satan’s little helpers, darling. A demon,” she made the ‘n’ a separate syllable, “is a being who goes around doing Satan’s evil work.”
“Like the opposite of an angel?” Josh said.
“Josh!” Jan looked around the garden, hoping nothing was listening. “You mustn’t talk about those sorts of creatures. It’s bad luck.”
“They can’t hurt you though, can they?” Daisy asked, smearing a little pumpkin flesh over her forehead as she brushed her hair out of her eyes. It looked like she was playing rituals.
“Demons?” Jan said.
“No.” And the little girl leant forwards and whispered. “Angels.”
“Don’t be silly. They’re not real. It’s just superstition. Like when someone says ‘Curse you’ after you’ve sneezed.”
The winners are here
Sometimes I feel like I might be another Tommy Wiseau. Like Tommy, I desperately want to make something that people will enjoy, yet perhaps I don’t have the skill or talent to translate my vision onto the page.
The problem is that although I can differentiate between good and bad writing beyond mere subjective taste, when it comes to my own work I cannot see how or why it’s not good enough. It’s as if I don’t understand the rules that everyone else is playing by.
Recently I’ve been doing the Quick Cryptic crosswords in the Times. They’re not as mind-bendingly difficult as the full 15×15 cryptic ones, but they can be tricky. I think they provide a good mental workout in preparation for writing as they test your lateral thinking, synonym recall and sometimes general knowledge. They’re also not quite as unforgiving as a concise crossword because you can work out an answer even if you don’t know what the definition part of the clue means.
For instance on Tuesday we had this:
3A Jongleur, extremely stout, protected by Merlin, somehow (8)
Now, I didn’t know what a “jongleur” was so if that was the entire clue in a concise crossword I would be stumped. However using the commonly known rules of cryptics you can work out the probable answer to be MINSTREL. (Extremely stout [take the first and last letters of STOUT] protected by Merlin, somehow [surround them with an anagram of Merlin]) If this solution seems like witchcraft to you, rest assured you are not alone.
My point here though is that I’ve actually learned a new word and definition. And by wrestling with the clue for a few minutes I’ll probably remember it better than if I’d just read it in some text and deduced its meaning from context.
There are, however, rules which I just don’t know. Obscure, impenetrable rules which seem to have been written by an inner conclave of crossword conspirators designed to make some puzzles impossible to everyone apart from those with special knowledge.
On Wednesday we had this:
21A Amphibian, old actor originally rescued in thick mist (4,4)
Admittedly, I immediately guessed at TREE FROG, but that’s not the point (Just because their conspiracies don’t work, doesn’t mean they’re not conspiring) FROG is obviously in there somewhere as thick mist is probably FOG and originally rescued is probably R. But where did TREE come from? The only bit of the clue left is old actor. I wracked my brains for an actor called Tree, or some sort of wordplay that might make it work to absolutely no avail.
There is an excellent website for Times Crossword enthusiasts which goes through the answers. (The guys who write this blog must be top of the murder list and arch enemies of the more clandestine crossword conspirators who don’t appear to have a website. But they wouldn’t, would they?) This is another site I can procrastinate on for hours as the comments are sometimes just as entertaining and informative as the main entries for each solution. You don’t often get comments like “I have a friend staying and on the way back from a lovely walk and lunch in Craster thought I would introduce him to the Times QC.” on YouTube. I think it’s a charming peek at the real life of people who you’ll never get to see on Big Brother and the like.
Anyway, on the Times for the Times website even the blogger responsible for the solution was somewhat bewildered by the old actor = tree scandal. Until a wise old hand revealed that: “TREE is Beerbohm Tree, founder of RADA and half-brother of Max Beerbohm, and perhaps the most hated chestnut in Times cryptics.”
This, it seemed to me, was outrageous. Perhaps the founder of RADA is a household name in other households but I had certainly never heard of him. Then it dawned on me that it really was my lack of skill and experience in this particular field that had baffled me. Veteran solvers might see “old actor” and immediately parse it as “tree”. In a similar fashion perhaps a genuinely talented writer might be able to make his point more succinctly.
The problem for Tommy Wiseau was that he didn’t really learn the rules and so his work is not seen in the way he intended it to be seen. Or is that the problem? Is Tommy a misunderstood genius who deliberately eschews the rules in order to create something that is beyond the comprehension and appreciation of his narrow minded contemporaries? Something that will be looked at differently when our brains have had time to catch up with him.
It worked for Ludwig van Beethoven, William Blake, Miguel de Cervantes, Leonardo da Vinci, Miles Davis and Vincent van Gogh. Art, music and literature would be very different if they hadn’t stuck their heads over the parapet in the way they did.
Maybe one day someone won’t care about the rules I broke when I wrote Entering the Weave or The Clockwork Butterfly or Charlie’s Worries.
I just wish I knew which rules I’ve broken.
Hurrah! Faber Academy’s #quickfic competition has been reinstated after presumably being extremely naughty. This gives me the perfect opportunity to either:
- Hone my writing skills with a fun little diversion or,
- Spend hours crafting something pointless that I’ll then spend more hours wondering why it didn’t win or come second and then spend more hours questioning whether it’s all a big fix and why on Earth do I bother.
I actually got an email from them specifically telling me that they’d brought the competition back. For a few minutes I swanned around the house assuming they’d plucked me from a list of people who write amazingly. They were probably emailing a select shortlist of writers like Hilary Mantel, Donna Tartt, Barbara Kingsolver and me, just so they would get some really good entries for the re-inaugural bout.
So, with a spring in my pen, I set about writing my entry based on this prompt:
“I can tell that you’re looking.” He says. Apart from the scar he is handsome.
I look away and mumble an apology.
“No, it’s fine.” He says. “It’s more me than me.”
He bangs the black-handled chrome thingy against the tray, trying to loosen the coffee grounds and I frown.
“What do you mean?” I ask. I think he wants me to ask but I still feel awkward. And I never feel awkward.
He releases steam, taps dials and pulls levers, working the complicated machine like a train driver.
“If it wasn’t for my scar, I wouldn’t be here.” And he grins. “I’d be normal, like you.”
Without meaning to, I look down at myself, at my tailored suit, my shiny black shoes. At my leather litigation case which must have cost more than he earns in a month.
“Really?” I say. My confidence has returned. Now I realise his coffee making has made him bitter. He must try this routine on every successful man in his queue.
He nods. “Do you want chocolate sprinkles?” There is no disdain in his eyes even though I search for it.
“Just the coffee.”
He pops the plastic top onto my cup and slides it onto the round shelf in front of me.
As I walk away, I see the next customer staring at his scar. She’s a young pretty girl. I guess she’s a student. He’s already smiling.
“I can tell that you’re looking.” He says.
I’ve decided that it, rather than I, didn’t win. The real winners are here.
You’re probably not wondering how I picked the literary luminaries who were emailed by the Faber Academy earlier. Some of the more cynical amongst you might think that I chose all these marvellous women in an effort to appear feminist and cool. The truth is simpler. Those were the authors on the closest shelf to my desk. I will let you decide how cool that makes me…
Nothing comes from nothing.
Even if you spontaneously sit down one day and decide to write a novel, the words have to come from somewhere. They usually come from your own experiences, possibly embellished by books you’ve read, films you’ve seen or songs you’ve heard. They may arrive via a more circuitous route like dreams or inspiration, but these are most likely your subconscious organising your thoughts in secret without your permission.
So you need to cultivate your sources. Live as interesting a life as possible, read as much good literature as possible, watch… you get the picture. Eventually you will have enough raw material to start work. As a convenient metaphor let’s take this majestic fir tree.
I am forty eight and spend the majority of my working day writing computer programs. I’ve been doing it for thirty years and so my usual daily routine does very little to grow my tree. I read as much as I can, mainly novels and magazines like New Scientist, London Book Review and National Geographic, and watch a variety of films and TV series. These things probably help new branches flourish. And I feed and water my tree by watching and listening to real people and conversations.
So, if you’re lucky enough to finally have a tree like the one in the picture you’ll have plenty of timber to craft something awesome. You need to whittle away the irrelevancies, strip away the deviations and dead boughs. This is where you’ll write your first draft.
Now comes the hard part. Take your saw, wood plane and set square and set about creating something usable. It’s not going to be the finished product. And it’s going to be difficult. You’re going to doubt that you’re doing the right thing. You’re going to doubt that you have the skill to turn this massive, natural, living thing into something worthwhile. You’re going to doubt that you have the resilience to finish this seemingly endless project… how can there be so much bark to strip, so many branches to remove?
But you MUST keep going. If you stop because of doubt or because you feel it’s just too difficult you probably won’t start again. You’ll only have to start growing another tree. And don’t spend too much time looking back at what you’ve already done. You’ll notice little knots that you’ve missed, or extraneous needles which spoil your overall vision. These can all be addressed in the next draft. Or the next.
Don’t get it right, just get it written – James Thurber
Eventually with enough time and effort you should have something. Not a finished something just something with which you can fashion your masterpiece out of. I aim, and often fail, to write 500 words a day so the first draft of a novel tends to take me more than six months. Stephen King never writes less than 2,000 words per day. I’ve seen people on Twitter claiming back to back 5,000+ words per day. Each to their own. Remember, it’s all about getting the first draft.
It’s probably a good idea to lock this pile of wood away in a drawer for a few weeks. You’re too close to the work to objectively assess what works and what doesn’t. You will probably have the urge to send it out to an agent or publisher. You’ve worked so hard to get to this point that it seems impossible that someone won’t recognise the potential and snap it up immediately. However, I happen to know that professionals in the publishing world do not appreciate having half a ton of unfinished lumber dumped on their doorstep. It is a waste of everyone’s time.
Now comes the hard part. While you were chopping your tree down into usable logs you probably had lots of ideas which you wrote into the pile. Now you’ll come to see if these ideas improve or detract from the work. Have they themselves become the main thrust of the story? Or should they be transferred to a future work? There are a million decisions to be made now, but try not to edit line by line. Take a broad overview of the whole novel, look at the structure and the point of view. Ask yourself what you’re trying to say, who it’s for and what it’s all about.
Remove or rewrite any parts that distract you. That piece of bark that really catches your eye needs to be trimmed away. It might have been your favourite section of writing in the whole book, you might have felt like you were channelling the gods of literature when you wrote it, but if it doesn’t fit it needs to go.
Ensure your characters and the motivations of your characters are believable. Kick out the Mary Sues or the character cliches.
You have a novel that you can be read, but now comes the hard part. Now you need to polish. Throw away the purple prose and the literary cliches, scour away those the nonsensical adverbs. Look for the metaphors that seem insincere and make them as original as possible. Make sure every sentence, every phrase means what you want it to mean. It doesn’t have to be wordy or complicated. In fact, simple is almost always best.
One of the more subtle problems with close editing is that it can make you lose your voice. All the spontaneity you used when you wrote your first draft are one of the things that make your manuscript unique and you must do your best to keep the essence of that safe.
You should do this until you can read through the whole novel and not change a single character. That’s the impossible dream.
Once you’ve completed all these steps, you might want to try and get your novel published. That really is the hard part.
Last year I entered Charlie’s Worries into The Bath Children’s Novel Award. As usual I had high hopes and even though I knew the long list would be announced on the 5th December, I kept checking my emails just in case they’d decided my entry was so good they needed to let me know immediately.
No such emails were forthcoming, but my excitement grew as the day of destiny approached. I knew the selection process was blind. The openings of the novels were stripped of any of the authors’ personal information. My middle-aged, middle-class, middle of the road life could not stand against me here, my writing would have to speak for itself, and live or die purely on its own merits.
When I read the long list announcement I scrolled down slowly through the longlistees expecting, at any moment, to see Charlie’s Worries pop up. I was completely oblivious to the fact that they had been listed in alphabetical order. If I had been less nervous and more clever I would have realised that my entry would have been second on the list, if it had been there at all.
A few moments of rereading and rescrolling up and down the list followed. And then a lot more moments of angry silence.
These moments stretched into days of furious, unfounded accusation and quiet depths of betrayal. Surely the whole competition was a complete fix. A farce in fact. There was no doubt in my mind that the twenty six longlistees must all be the wife/husband/brother/sister/mother or father of the judging panel. It was the only explanation.
I’d like to say that this phase passed quickly, but I can’t. The long list was going to be whittled down to a short list of five on the 5th January, so there was barely a day in December that I did not ruminate upon the unjust dagger of rejection the The Bath Children’s Judges had thrust into my heart.
I pretended not be bothered on the 5th January. And I would have succeeded if a tiny part of me didn’t think that perhaps there had been mistake and I’d been left off the published long list by a word processing error. Perhaps my work of genius had actually made it to final five. That wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility, that was not a ridiculous flight of fancy.
Except, of course, it was. I was not on the short list.
The injustice of it. The single lined summaries sounded rubbish. How could any of these be better than my writing? Although the spider one did sound quite good. And the others maybe did have potential to be slightly interesting, as long as they were written properly. In fact, when I compared them to my own summary of Charlie’s Worries I realised they all sounded more interesting and unusual. And much, much clearer.
A month of soul rebuilding followed in the lead up to announcement of the overall winner. I can’t say I forgave these writers for their success, but I probably came to terms with the fact that there were other people who deserved at least some recognition for their efforts.
And then, on February 8th it really began to dawn on me that my accusations of cheating and nepotism might have been somewhat unfounded.
The identities of the success thieves were made public along with the opening pages of the five shortlisted novels.
It was galling. They were all worthy of winning. Each one drew me in and I would have read more if more had been available. I sat back from my computer, deflated.
Another month of growing up followed. In the back of my mind I’d always partly blamed my lack of literary success on the workshy policies or nefarious agendas of the agents I sent my work to. I could never bring myself to admit that perhaps, just perhaps, my writing was not quite good enough to slip through the narrow crack to publication. There was always something or someone standing in my way.
Well, no longer. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to read my competition I can fully appreciate how competitive the market it. If an agent gets over a hundred submissions a week then only the ones that are truly original, perfectly written or both will get a second read. It’s not a conspiracy. I just need to be better. And I’ll only get better by writing more.
I’d probably come to this conclusion by St Patrick’s Day when an interview with the overall winner was published on the Bath Novel Awards blog. It turns out that Struan Murray did not just sit down one day and decide to enter this competition. He’s been writing for years. This is his third completed novel and he has never given up.
Along with being a doctor, having extremely cool hair, saving kittens from trees (probably) and being a Bath Children’s Novel Award winner, Dr Murray also spends his creative time drawing parts of the world in which his novel is set – one of which is displayed at the top of this post. That shows a dedication I have only, so far, dreamed about.
So, congratulations to all the longlistees and shortlistees, but particularly to Struan Murray. I look forward to reading the full version of The Vessel when it is finally published
I dreamt a vampire was at my window last night.
Its smooth baldness accentuated gnarled ears. Its pallid skin was as white as its long, twisted canine teeth. The only colour in that gruesome face were its irises which were yellow surrounding a black, pinprick pupil.
It floated outside the diamond leaded glass so that only its head was visible. It might have been the moon turned malevolent until it raised a crack-taloned hand and scratched. Its eyes compelled me to obey. As if in a dream I shuffled over to the window. My hands were shaking as I raised them to lift the window latch.
“Let me in, mortal.” The voice could have been inside my head, but that did not make it less real or less compelling.
I fumbled as I touched the cold clasp and a craving rose in its glistening eyes. “Yes, yes,” it cackled. A red tongue flicked out between its monstrous teeth and licked its livid lips.
The window swung open.
Slowly, as if to savour the moment, the vampire drifted into my bedroom.
It was taller than I, and thin. It was dressed in corpse clothes. Clothes that it had been buried in. Grave dirt greased its dark suit where I imagine it had squeezed out of the coffin and wriggled up through the soil.
Then I showed him my To-Do list on my phone. He was fascinated and kept asking me question about how I’d organised it.
That’s the problem with dreams… they often don’t end up making much sense.
I love musicals. Most of my less evolved friends make fun of me for this. They undoubtedly associate musicals with sissiness and whimsy. Whereas I know the truth: music plus storytelling evokes emotions unable to be reached by the wittiest romcom or the explodingest thriller.
There is a simple explanation for this. Music, even in its simplest form, has the most direct line to our hearts. If you have a piano handy, I invite you to sit before it and play a C Major chord (C,E,G) You’ll hear a pleasant, perhaps strident sound. There’s no definitive emotion carried by this single noise, but if you change one note of the chord, if you drop the E by a semitone, the new chord will sound unmistakably sad. Anyone who has grown up hearing music played utilising the twelve golden notes of the chromatic scale will instantly understand that.
So, in one second, in fact in the moment between seconds music can convey a primal feeling more strongly than even the most touching monologue.
Quote: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.” – Roy Batty
With this weapon in your arsenal you can then skilfully craft the music to emphasise or foreshadow or reassure and you can almost guarantee your audience’s instinctive reaction.
Obviously, some musicals don’t work and that’s usually because the music is not in accord with the activity on stage then the discordant result might be worse than no music at all. The “Jukebox” musicals are dire (IMHO) because the action has been wrestled around a body of work that was never meant to be a cohesive whole. It might also be that the music and songs are merely bad. The writer cannot just bung a few songs into a play and claim his job is done. As with any artistic endeavour, it’s not that simple.
However, when it works, it really works.
There is a moment in the aptly titled “The Sound of Music” where Captain von Trapp is singing at the festival that I can barely even think about without squirting tears out over my computer screen.
He is a proud man and, as he attempts to sing the Austrian folk song “Edelweiss” to his fellow countrymen the full enormity of what is happening to the world, to his family and to himself settles onto his shoulders. He looks around the auditorium and sees people bowed or enthralled by fascism and for a second his strength and breath fail him.
His voice falters.
Maria, who has come to know and love him throughout the film, quickly steps forward and lends him her sweet voice and then ushers the children forward. Buoyed by the support of his family the proud Captain regains his strength and finishes the song to rapturous applause.
It’s simple, but it would not be as heart-wrenchingly beautiful without the music. If he was merely making a speech and Maria stepped in to help it would be easy to see him as weak. As it is, the music carries the message in harmony with the action and the film steps beyond its celluloid medium and into the realm of the exquisite.
My problem now, is how am I going to survive my daughter’s school production of this?